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Focus sur le Patriarcat Œcuménique et son ecclésiologie


For a survey of the claims made by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, see “First without Equals”, On the Power of the Great Church: Address by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 26 October 2018, and The Ecclesiology of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2018: Speech by Patriarch Bartholomew.

Does the Ecumenical Patriarchate have a particular authority contained in its role as “first among equals”?

Yes. Various inter-Church agreements have at our current time given the Ecumenical Patriarchate a special role in heading, ordering, and organizing various pan-Orthodox activities.

What is the scope of this authority?

This is the area of contention.

To some extent the past hundred years of pan-Orthodox cooperation have laid a groundwork that outlines a role for the Ecumenical Patriarch in the current pan-Orthodox global structures.1 What is happening though is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is expanding its claims for jurisdiction beyond that which has been agreed upon. First of all, it claims universal jurisdiction over the diaspora. However, this interpretation of the canons is not something that has pan-Orthodox agreement. Also in the recent statements the Patriarchate has claimed it “enjoys canonical jurisdiction and all apostolic privileges in its responsibility for safeguarding the unity and communion of the local Churches but also for the overall journey of Orthodoxy in the contemporary world and history.”This also is up for debate. While all agree that the Patriarchate has an advisory and coordinating role as “first among equals”, no agreement has been reached concerning any canonical jurisdiction or apostolic privileges that accompany this role. These claims have been advanced unilaterally by the Ecumenical Patriarchate without agreement from the rest of the Church.

Who determines the scope of this authority?

Here lies the central issue, which if not solved will leave a continuing wound in the Church. Traditionally, the scope of authority of any bishop is received through the hands of other bishops. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is putting forward an ecclesiology wherein the authority he is claiming dwells and always has dwelt in the See of Constantinople, and thus he is not recognizing this responsibility and authority as a result of, and limited to, the agreements that have been signed.

As long as the Ecumenical Patriarchate continues to believe that this responsibility and authority exists in itself essentially, and thus is not something given by the rest of the Church, there can really be no agreement on what this authority consists of. Under this ecclesiology the Patriarchate of Constantinople has defended its position by simply claiming that anyone who disagrees with it is an enemy of and does not really love the Church. This is because it sees itself as essentially the Church. It is the vine and the other Churches are merely branches.

This attitude by the Patriarchate is a rejection of proper Orthodox ecclesiology wherein any bishop’s authority is something that is given by the existing ecclesiastical hierarchy, not something he has in himself. This attitude is causing turmoil for the Church. Unity cannot be maintained when one member is not submitted to the others but making its own rules.

The Bible calls us to submit to one another in the fear of God and also to submit to the governing authorities. The Ecumenical Patriarch is not submitted to either—both the Turkish government and the other autocephalous Churches see the actual jurisdictional authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch as being local, not universal.

Is the Ecumenical Patriarchate the “Mother Church” or the beginning of the Orthodox Church?

All the Churches have their beginning from the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happened in Jerusalem. This is the birthplace of the Church. However, we do not consider the Jerusalem Church a Mother Church in the sense that the EP is claiming. Various Churches become Mother Churches in a relative sense when they plant missions. This relative motherhood though only means that some Local Churches are involved in planting and guiding new Churches. It does not mean that any Local Church is a source of life for any other Church. The source of life for the whole Church is the one Mystery that we all partake of.

Can Orthodoxy exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

The existence of the Church is not dependent upon any particular patriarch or administrative structure but is dependent upon the Holy Trinity as its source of existence, its ongoing life, and its right ordering, harmony, righteousness, and enlightenment. This life of the Holy Trinity is present as a sacramental reality interpenetrating the whole Church.

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